Mridangam Maestro Guruvayur Dorai 

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“If you can walk with kings and not lose the common touch... yours is the earth and all that is there in it” could well be the way to describe Kalaimamani Guruvayur Dorai. A mridangist par excellence, Dorai has played all over the world, received several honours, served as visiting faculty to institutions abroad and yet remains the simple man that he always was. That is what strikes me most as I enter his home and chat with him and Mrs. Dorai.

Few others have had the privilege of rubbing shoulders with all the stalwarts in Carnatic music. Dorai attributes his inspiration to his sister Guruvayur Ponnammal who was a famous singer in her time. His father often wondered what profession his son would choose, but when he found that young Dorai kept drumming his fingers on chairs, tables or whatever else he could find, he felt that mridangam was the right choice for him. He was sent for training at the age of 6 to the eminent mridangam vidwans Sri. Palghat Subba Iyer, Sri. E. P. Narayana Pisharody of Eranallur and later to Sri. Palani Subramaniam Pillai.

The legendary Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar was the person Dorai was privileged to accompany at his arangetram at the age of 8. He started playing for concerts in Bangalore and Mysore and met Sri. Muthiah Bhagavathar at Mysore and got his blessings. He accompanied big names in Carnatic music like Flute Mali, Palladam Sanjeeva Rao, Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu and later Semmangudi. The mridangam is not easy to accompany a soft instrument like the veena, says Dorai, but he did it with finesse for veterans like Chitti Babu, S. Balachander, K. S. Narayanaswami, Doraiswamy Iyengar and M. A. Kalyanakrishna Bhagavathar. It was a rare combination of Nadaswaram and Mridangam when Dorai accompanied Nadaswara Chakravarthi T. N. Rajaratnam Pillai. 

What about fusion, I ask. Carnatic music is pure, he says. Where is the need for fusion? He did Jugalbandis with Nikhil Banerjee and S. Balachander but sees no need for fusion when Carnatic music is so rich by itself.

Why do people in the audience walk out as soon as the percussion session starts? He's puzzled that people who listen to a vocal concert for 3 hours cannot wait for 20 minutes to listen to the percussion instruments. The audience needs to educate itself and learn to appreciate much more. It is a courtesy extended to the artistes and when this is denied there is not much encouragement for the artistes to go on. He remembers the days at R. R. Sabha when the great maestro Palghat Mani Iyer used to play. People who were sipping soda at the stall would rush in to listen to him. Where is there such an audience today for percussion, he asks?

How difficult was it to get to where he is now? Dorai is pensive for a minute and says that youngsters have a lot more opportunities these days and a lot of exposure to music because of tapes and CDs. In his days, he says, they had to listen with rapt attention to the teacher and imbibe all they could, retain it in their minds and express it flawlessly later.

Tours to UK, USA, Singapore, Canada, Malaysia, South Africa, Bahrain... Is there any corner of the globe that he has not touched, I wonder aloud. Performances at the Festivals of India in USA and USSR , the Tansen Festival, the Indian Music Festivals in France and West Germany are some of the important public concerts he recalls. Etched in his memory is the first Festival of India when he accompanied M. S. Subbulakshmi. Several universities have had Dorai as part of their visiting faculty: University of Washington (Seattle), Sydney University (Australia, along with Prof. T. N. Krishnan), Western Michigan University-Kalamazoo, USA. He was Dean of the Temple of Arts, an international organization for the promotion of music and dance.

As for awards, the list is huge and among others are the Laya Gnana Samrat title conferred by the Association of Musicians and Music Lovers, Kalaimamani conferred by the Govt. of Tamil Nadu in 1990, the title of Asthana Vidwan in 1991 from the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam and a title from Ahobila Mutt. There’s more... Laya Chakravarthy from Indian Fine Arts, Texas, Austin, USA in 2002, the Sangeeth Nataka Academy Award with a felicitation by T. N. Seshagopalan at Bangalore on April 13th,2003 and an award from Shankara Bhoopathi Vizha committee, Madurai on July 27th. This year on December 13th, Raga Sudha will be the venue for the honour that his disciples will offer him and the Sangeetha Kala Sikhamani title from Indian Fine Arts will be given on December 17th.

So many honours, so much recognition and felicitation leave me astounded and the question that struck me at the beginning of the meeting surfaces again. How does one not get swayed and obsessed with ego after all this? Dorai seems to feel the question is too simplistic and he tells the story of Subbarama Bhagavathar, the well known vocalist who was approached by Smt. Rukminidevi Arundale to accept the post of Principal of Kalakshetra. Asking the neighbours for the house of the musician, Smt. Arundale was shown to a hut where a person in a red "mundu" was busy preparing dung cakes. Assuming that such a great vocalist would hardly fit such a description, Smt. Arundale asked for the musician, whereupon Subbarama Bhagavathar went in, washed his hands and reappeared as the person sought after! He explained that he was so rooted in this traditional way of living and he could not think of moving to the bright lights of the city of Chennai. He could suggest someone, he said and Tiger Varadachari would be the ideal person and would do greater justice to the position. What better definition of humility could one ask for, Dorai says. All of us can be great percussionists so long as our hands are able and it is only with God’s grace that we could be of service. We are nothing without Him, he adds.

Geetha Iyengar.

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